No visit to Cairo is complete without a walk through Islamic Cairo, the medieval city established by the Fatimids in the 10th century. As you stroll down the district’s narrow alleyways, you’ll encounter monuments built over the course of 1,000 years. Meanwhile, all around you, local residents will be going about their daily lives. For a major tourist attraction, this is about as authentic as you can get.
The following guide will also cover the Citadel of Saladin, which, if you time things right, can be seen on the same day as the Fatimid Bayn al-Qasrayn district.
‘Islamic Cairo,’ of course, is a vague term, as Cairo remains an overwhelmingly Muslim city. But in this guide, we’ll be using the term to refer to the areas with a high concentration of structures built by the Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluk Sultans and Ottomans.
Those with a particular interest in Islamic history and architecture could spend days, if not weeks, exploring all that Cairo has to offer. However, if you’re like me and mainly came to Egypt to visit its ancient (i.e. pre-Christian) landmarks, just one or two days in Islamic Cairo should suffice.
Bayn al-Qasrayn / AL-Muizz Street
To get an idea for how Cairo would’ve looked and felt in centuries past, there’s no better place to visit than the Bayn al-Qasrayn district and its central al-Muizz street. Established by the Fatimids upon conquering Egypt, they established a new walled city here that they called Al Qahira, now known as Cairo.
But who were the Fatimids? Originally headquartered in modern-day Tunisia, the Fatimids were a dynasty belonging to the Nizari Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam. And they traced their lineage back to Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.
In 969, they took over Egypt from its previous Sunni rulers, establishing a new Islamic caliphate with Egypt as their base. Previous rulers were headquartered out of a military garrison called Fustat. But the Fatimids decided to build a new walled city further north, the gates of which can still be seen today.
The Fatimids, who ruled until 1171, established numerous mosques and schools, and Egypt thrived both culturally and economically under their rule. But later dynasties such as the Ayyubids and Mamluk Sultanate all left their mark along al-Muizz.
For 100 EGP, tourists can buy a single ticket which provides access to all of the attractions mentioned below. At the time of writing, this can only be purchased at the Qalawun Complex, the street’s southernmost attraction.
Therefore, we’ll be covering the attractions of al-Muizz street from south to north. When finished, return south to see the famous Khan el-Kallili bazaar. Or, depending on where you’re staying, you may find it easier to begin your explorations there.
Note that by ordering the list geographically, we’ll be jumping back and forth throughout various historical eras.
The Qalawun Complex, built from 1284-85, was established by Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun, head of the Mamluk Sultanate. And it’s widely regarded as the most significant Mamluk landmark among dozens which remain standing in Cairo.
The Mamluks were originally a class of slave soldiers, largely of Turkic descent (though Circassians and even Georgians sometimes made up their ranks). Over time, they became an elite class, holding tremendous miltary power.
And in the mid-13th century, following the Mongol destruction of the Abassid Caliphate (to whom previous Egyptian rulers were loyal), they seized control of the country, ruling until 1517.
Visible from all over al-Muizz Street, the vast complex contained everything an elite family might need. It had a hospital, school and mausoleums for the sultan and his relatives. Notably, it was built over the former royal palace of the Fatimids.
Visitors enter through a long hallway separating the school (madrassa) from the funerary complex. The open courtyard in the back, meanwhile, was the location of the hospital. Here, live musicians would played uplifting music to calm patients’ nerves.
The architectural highlight of the complex is the Mausoleum of Sultan al-Mansur Sayf al-Din Qalawun. The intricately decorated room features a mix of carved marble, stucco and painted wood.
Madrasa And Dome of Sultan Al-Nassir Mohammed Ibn Qalawun
Just next to the main Qalawun Complex is the madrassa and mosque of Al-Nassir Mohammed Ibn Qalawun, the ninth Mamluk sultan to rule Egypt and the son of the aforementioned Sultan Qalawun.
Inaugurated in 1303, it’s a relatively small and simple structure compared to those on either side of it. But little of its original decorations survive. The structure was heavily influence by Iranian Islamic architecture at the time.
Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Barquq
A bit further down the road is the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Barquq, constructed around 100 years after the Qalawun Complex. Sultan Barquq was the founder of the Burj dynasty, who, while still part of the Mamluk Sultanate, were of Circassian rather than Turkic origin.
The structure was established as a religious center of learning. And it’s easily one of the most impressive structures of al-Muizz street, despite getting relatively few visitors.
The project was carried out by renowned architect Ahmad al-Tuluni and the level of detail is astounding. Highlights include the painted ceiling of the main sanctuary’s iwan (vaulted rectangular hall), the marble qibla wall (which denotes the direction of Mecca), and the sabil (fountain pavilion) in the center of the courtyard.
Mausoleum of Al-Saleh Nagm Al-Din Ayyub
Backtracking slightly to the south, you’ll find an additional mausoleum just across from the main Qalawun Complex. In this case, the structure belongs to a 13th century Ayyubid sultan.
Sultan As-Salih Ayyub was the last ruler of the Ayubbid dynasty (1117-1250), a dynasty established by Saladin (more below) and loyal to the Baghdad-based Abassid Caliphate. Well, technically, his wife shortly took the throne before the Mamluks seized total control.
The mausoleum is part of a larger structure originally built by the Fatimids. But look down at the stepping stone by the entrance and you’ll see a limestone block from an ancient Egyptian temple.
Showing my ticket to the guy at the entrance, he immediately led me to a nearby structure. It soon became clear he was going to take me to a ‘secret’ place and then ask me for a tip.
He took me to a little upstairs room with overhead views of the street. He was annoyed when I declined to pay him, but I just wanted to visit the mausoleum. While there are less touts and scams on al-Muizz than at other attractions in Egypt, it’s certainly not hassle free.
Sabil-Kuttab of Rahman Katkhuda
Heading northward, you’ll easily spot the Sabil-Kuttab of Rahman Katkhuda in the middle of the road. This is one was built by the Ottomans, who toppled the Mamluks in the 15th century.
Under the Mamluk Sultanate, Egypt was a dominant power who exerted much political and cultural influence throughout the Arab world. But under Ottoman rule, Egypt reverted to an ordinary province as it had been under the Romans.
The little tower is pretty to look at, but what exactly is it? It was actually a unique fusion of cold water fountain and Islamic school!
This is one of the most recent structures of al-Muizz, having been built in the mid-18th century by influential architect Katkhuda. Today there’s just a little shop inside.
Just around the corner is the Bashtak Palace, built during the Mamluk era by a lord name Bashtak. It was constructed on the spot of a former royal palace of the Fatimids.
During my visit, many of the lights were turned off and most of the palace was inaccessible. While there are some decent views from the terrace, a stop here is by no means essential.
A bit down the main road is the madrassa of al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin. While a respected place of scholarship in its time, it’s largely in ruins today.
It’s skippable, but it only requires a couple of minutes to look at if you’re curious. It’s notable for being one of the few surviving structures from the Ayyubid period (1171–1250).
Hammam of Sultan Inal
Built in 1456, this Mamluk Sultanate-era bathhouse is worth a quick walk through. It’s recently been restored, though only as a tourist attraction. The baths are all empty.
One of the most notable features of the hammam is the set of round colored windows built into the domed roof.
During the Mamluk era there were as many as three hundred bathhouses in Cairo. They were places to bathe and get massages and of course, they played an important role in social life. Traditional hammams can still be found in many Islamic countries today.
One of the main highlights of Islamic Cairo is Bayt al-Suhaymi, situated down a quaint little alley to the east of al-Muizz. It was constructed between 1648 and 1797, making this one of the few surviving structures from the Ottoman era. And it wasn’t a place of worship or learning, but a private residence.
It’s now named after its final resident, Sheikh Muhammad Amin al-Suhaymi. Much later, in 1930, it was purchased by the Egyptian government for preservation as a cultural landmark and tourist attraction. More recently, it was restored in the 1990s following a devastating earthquake.
Visitors first encounter the quaint central courtyard, or sahn. You can then enter and explore the various rooms and hallways on both the first and second floors. Clearly, everything was created with a great attention to detail.
Interestingly, many of the rooms were designed with seasonal temperatures and sunlight in consideration. Therefore, the Cairo elite of the Ottoman era could live in total comfort all throughout the year in the days before air conditioning.
There’s also an additional garden to check out in the back.
Masjid al-Aqmar and Masjid al-Hakim
Back on al-Muizz and continuing north, you’ll finally pass by two important mosques built by the Fatimids, the founders of al-Muizz and Cairo itself.
The first is Al Aqmar Mosque, constructed in 1125. This is not part of the inclusive ticket, but is an active mosque that remains in use by the local community. As prayer was taking place as I walked by, I didn’t end up going in.
Further up ahead is Al-Hakim Mosque which dates back to late 10th century. It’s one of oldest and most important mosques in Islamic Cairo, having been built by the Fatimids over a period of 23 years.
Sadly, the mosque was under construction during my visit. Some men out front led me inside to catch a glimpse, but they wouldn’t let me take any photos. All I saw was a vast, wide open courtyard.
Just outside the mosque are numerous benches which seem to be a popular hangout spot for local students.
The northernmost section of al-Muizz is an original gate constructed by the Fatimids when they founded Cairo. Originally, the entrance would’ve been much larger, but the height of the street outside has since risen significantly.
Look closely and you’ll find holes through which soldiers could shoot arrows at attackers, or even pour hot oil on unwanted guests!
Heading east along the exterior boundary wall, you can find another gate called Bab el-Nasr. And there’s another one called Bab Zuwayla much further south. All three were built by the Fatimids, marking the original boundaries of the new city of Al Qahira.
Heading east along the exterior boundary wall, you can find another gate called Bab el-Nasr. And there’s another one called Bab Zuwayla much further south. All three were built by the Fatimids, marking the original boundaries of their new city of Al Qahira.
South of al-Muizz
If, based on the location of your hotel, you’re approaching the Islamic Cairo area from the south, you can begin your day with the following few locations.
Otherwise, simply backtrack and enjoy a nice stroll south down al-Muizz from the northern gate. It only takes around 10 minutes or so to traverse the whole street.
Khan el-Khalili is arguably Cairo’s most famous bazaar. It’s situated on what was once one of the Fatimids’ royal palaces. Originally during Fatimid rule, the walled city banned commoners from entering, and it wasn’t opened up until the Ayyubid era.
Later during the Mamluk Period, Sultan Burquq destroyed many former Fatimid mausoleums and constructed a souk, or market here. It’s now largely catered to tourists, with many of the goods consisting of jewelry and local handcrafts.
Not being much of a market person, a quick walk through was enough for me. It was late morning and many of the shops were still closed. Those interested in shopping might want to arrive a bit later in the day.
There are some nice little coffee shops in the area as well, but expect to pay exorbitant prices, at least by Egyptian standards.
Al-Hussain Mosque & Surroundings
Heading further south, you’re now out of the al-Muizz district and your inclusive ticket won’t be of any use here. Anyway, the first major landmark, al-Hussain Mosque, is off-limits to non-Muslims.
It’s regarded as a very holy place, as it enshrines Ibn al-Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.
Also nearby is Al-Azhar University, a center of learning established by the Fatimids in the 10th century. It remains one of the world’s most important schools of Islamic studies, and I spotted numerous foreign students walking around campus.
While I didn’t enter the campus proper or the school’s mosque, there are some interesting little alleyways full of bookshops surrounding the university.
Al Azhar Park
Further southeast, accessible from the main highway of Salah Salem, is Al-Azhar Park. This isn’t a historical site like the others, and not technically a part of ‘Islamic Cairo.’ It does, however, contain sections of an original Ayyubid wall.
The park makes for a nice respite from Cairo’s infamous pollution and traffic. And it also provides decent views of Bayn al-Qasrayn in one direction and of the Citadel in the other. The park costs 20 EGP to enter.
The park was built over a former garbage heap, but is now home to some well-manicured gardens and fancy restaurants.
For some strange reason, Google Maps has Saladin’s Citadel as being in the center of this park! There’s some kind of restaurant named after the Citadel within Al-Azhar, which is likely to blame for the mishap. The large fort/mosque you see up in the distance is the Citadel, so don’t go looking for it in the park.
The Cairo Citadel
Near the end of the Fatimid dynasty, the caliphate had lost much of their territory in Syria. There was infighting between the Caliph and vizier, while the Christian Crusaders had their sights set on Egypt.
And that’s when Saladin, a Kurdish military commander, entered Egypt through Syria, protecting it from the Crusaders and bringing stability to the region.
Despite being a Sunni Muslim, Saladin was appointed vizier of the Shia Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate. He held the position for two years before abolishing the Fatimid Caliphate altogether in 1171.
In its place, he established the Ayyubid dynasty and aligned Egypt with the Baghdad-based Abassid Caliphate. The move was largely welcomed by the Egyptian population, which had always been majority Sunni.
In Cairo, Saladin moved the center of power away from the walled city established by the Fatimids, building a new citadel further south. Though the Ayyubid dynasty came to an end in 1250, the Cairo Citadel remained the center of Egyptian power up until the 19th century.
Unsurprisingly, it’s now one of Cairo’s main tourist attractions. Entry to the Citadel costs 180 EGP. And according to the sign out front, there are a myriad of different attractions to see inside. But as I’ll go over below, things didn’t turn out quite how I expected.
Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque
The Citadel is home to a few different mosques. The first one I encountered was that of Al-Nasir Muhammad. He was a 14th-century Mamlik Sultan and one of the sons of Qalawun.
He’s also responsible for the madrassa situated just next to the Qalawun Complex mentioned above. While nothing too remarkable for the casual tourist, the mosque is worth a quick visit.
Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Many of the other attractions around the Citadel turned out to be dedicated to the Egyptian military and police department. Given the Citadel’s history as a military fort, it sort of makes sense.
But how many tourists dedicating a day to exploring Islamic Cairo would bother to stop at the Police Museum?
Walking around the Citadel, I was surprised to find that aside the museums and the Muhammad Ali Mosque, nothing else was open. And so I made my way over to the huge mosque, which is easily one of Cairo’s most famous landmarks.
Muhammad Ali, of Albanian origin, was the Ottoman governor of Egypt from 1805 to 1848, helping drive Napolean out of the country. Due to his numerous cultural and political reforms, he’s widely revered today as the founder of modern Egypt.
Interestingly, he went rogue and ended up fighting against the Ottoman Empire. And in Egypt he founded a dynasty that would hold power until the 20th century.
He commissioned this impressive mosque in 1830, and it was finally completed in 1848. Its style is distinctly Ottoman, and it was specifically modeled after Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque). Ottoman mosques in turn were heavily influenced by Byzantine cathedrals.
The mosque can be seen from all throughout the city, and it’s no less impressive when standing right out front. Dismayingly, however, the mosque is largely comprised of the limestone casing stones that once adorned the pyramids of Giza. (Supposedly, many of them had already fallen off the pyramids in an earthquake.)
Strangely, when stepping inside, there’s no area to place one’s shoes, nor were any plastic bags provided. Therefore, all visitors were just walking around inside with shoes in hand.
It’s unclear why this strange policy exists at such a famous attraction, and it really hampered the experience.
I’m normally hesitant to label places as tourist traps. Many popular landmarks got that way for a reason, and you can still enjoy them by focusing your attention on their history and architecture. With that being said, leaving the Citadel, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d just come out of a tourist trap.
The high ticket price combined with the long list of attractions gives visitors a false impression that there’s lots to do and see. But even taking my time, I spent barely over an hour at the Cairo Citadel.
For those looking to see even more of Islamic Cairo, the famous mosques of Al Rifa’i Mosque and Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan are nearby the Citadel. But I decided to end my day by visiting one of Cairo’s oldest mosques, about 20 minutes away on foot.
Ibn Tulun Mosque
The Mosque of Ibn Tulun dates back to the 9th century. It’s one of the oldest mosques in Islamic Cairo, even predating the arrival of the Fatimids. In fact, it’s the oldest surviving mosque in all of Africa!
Inb Tulun was an agent of the Turkish general Babak who created his own army, becoming autonomous from the central government in Baghdad.
He founded the Tulunid dynasty which ruled independently of the Abassid Caliphate. Tulun used Egypt as his base from which to occupy parts of Syria and Palestine. But his dynasty only lasted from 868-905.
The Mosque of Ibn Tulun was modeled after the Great Mosque of Samarra in present-day Iraq. It utilizes brick and plaster, popular building materials in Iraq but ones which were seldom used in Egypt at the time. One of its most popular features is its spiral minaret.
Following the Tulunid dynasty, Egypt was briefly ruled by another short-lived dynasty called the Ikhshidid dynasty (935-969). And then the Fatimids came. And they, along with many of dynasties to rule after them, all left their mark is some shape or form on the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.
Entry is technically free, though you will be asked to make a donation.
Regardless of where you’re staying in Cairo or Giza, you can easily reach the Islamic Cairo area with an Uber. Just take Cairo’s insane traffic into consideration when planning your day. It’s wise to leave even earlier than you think necessary.
As mentioned above, most of the al-Muizz street area can be traversed on foot. While it’s technically possible to reach the Cairo Citadel from there on foot (I tried), it’s a much better idea to take an Uber or taxi to get there.
You can also ask your hotel to set you up with a private driver for the day.
Obviously, if you want easy access to Islamic Cairo, staying somewhere within the central part of the city would be ideal. However, many tourists will end up spending more time exploring ancient Egyptian ruins than in the city itself.
As Saqqara and Dahshur are both south of Giza, which itself is southwest of central Cairo, staying there will save you a lot of time and hassle. On the day you visit Islamic Cairo, you can just call an Uber.
In my case, I began and ended my Egypt travels in the Cairo area. In the beginning I divided my stay between Giza and the village of Abu Sir, focusing my attention on ancient Egyptian ruins.
Later, upon my return to Cairo, I based myself in the city center, not far from Tahrir Square. That way I could even walk to places like al-Muizz. My stay in central Cairo was mostly OK, but my hotel turned out to be surprisingly dirty and I’m not going to recommend it to others.
In Abu Sir/Saqqara I stayed at the Sakkara Inn. Not only is the hotel situated in an authentic local village, but Mohamed the owner can set you up with reliable drivers for an affordable price. (I even continued to have him arrange drivers for me after checking out, as other places were quoting me much higher.)
In Giza I stayed at Abo Stait Pyramid View Homestay. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the Sphinx entrance of the Giza Necropolis. The family who runs it was very friendly and helpful. And while the bathroom is shared with a few other guests and family members, it wasn’t a big deal.
I’m a budget traveler, but those with more money to spend will find no shortage of accommodation options in the Giza area.